A Defense of School Gardens and Response to Caitlin Flanagan's "Cultivating Failure" in The Atlantic


Photo: Rodale Institute.

The Edible Schoolyard program, which began in 1995 at Martin Luther King public middle school in Berkeley, has inspired growth of garden programs in other communities throughout the county during the past 15 years.The program teaches children valuable lessons as they learn to grow food. However, Caitlin Flanagan's diatribe against school gardens, "Cultivating Failure," in the latest edition of The Atlantic attacks the program through two main arguments. The first is that in a troubled school system every resource should be funneled into the core disciplines of "literacy, numeracy, and civic understanding." Whether school gardening "works" to educate children does not seem to merit consideration to Flanagan. Presumably, like art, music, and anything else that is not in the state performance exams, working and learning in the school garden is a sham activity that betrays the true needs of students, mostly minority, to prove their testing competence in our brave new world. In doing so, Flanagan ignores the entirety of mainstream educational reform in the 20th century and beyond.It is knowledge common to most educators that children learn through a variety of modalities and thrive in supportive and interactive environments. Patsy Benveniste, vice president of Community Education Programs at the Chicago Botanic Gardens offers a response from within the ongoing movement to strengthen schools through gardening:

One of the main ideas behind school gardening is to allow the child--constrained in an utterly artificial "learning" environment that denies most requirements of genuine physical and psychic development--a little freedom and play; a little sensory exploration and experimentation; a little socialization around a joint effort to create something that is tangible and valued by others and maybe even edible. Flanagan seems to think that our only recourse in the face of massive educational failure by this country is to close the blinds, lock the doors and drill more work on the captives. She does not seem to understand that the kids who are being failed by the system will never profit by her remedy.

This argument is ignorant of developmental theory and understanding of how children learn and grow. E.F. Schumacher said in Small is Beautiful that the task of education was not the process of creating "know how." The task of education is "first and foremost, the transmission of ideas of value, of what to do with our lives." Frederick Froebel knew in the early 19th century that children must be nurtured outside of rigid patterns. Heck, Cicero knew it... "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."

The second basic premise of Ms. Flanagan's article involves torching a straw woman by the name of Alice Waters. Yes, it seems that Alice Waters, the Edible Schoolyard program at MLK Middle School, and school gardens throughout the country are responsible for all that ails the American Public School System. However, the expansion of school gardens in America does not stem from some mesmeric, cult-of-personality influence of Alice Waters on school districts, but rather because it works. School boards and principals have seen success stories and have chosen to incorporate gardening activities into our public schools one school at a time. A garden can reinforce many lessons learned in a classroom. Furthermore, through a garden a student can also learn responsibility, self-sufficiency, teamwork, volunteerism, and environmental stewardship.


Photo: Peace Development Fund.

Adding insult to injury, Flanagan's article condescends terribly to the people she purports to defend. She chafes at the colonial, exploitative horror of asking Hispanic students to harvest lettuce in the school garden. By using this analogy, Flanagan denigrates labor and laborers with her view that hard work is an activity that should be avoided, instead of an action that deserves our respect. She quotes Orwell on the tendency of the poor to choose empty, consoling calories over real nutrition. According to Flanagan, the sheer misery of the poor overwhelms their appetite for "boring, wholesome food." Flanagan also attempts to attack the food desert theory by insisting that poor people do have access to produce, her empirical proof being a one-time visit to two grocery stores in Compton.

In fact, in an age of diabetes, obesity, and under-funded school lunch programs, Edible Schoolyard can transform kids dietary habits and provide them with adequate nutrition which will keep their minds alert and aid them in excelling in their studies. All this can be achieved by spending an hour or so a week tending the arugula.

Finally, Flanagan has fallen onto the pendulum swing syndrome that captures many educational critics. Our pluralistic society educates a broad spectrum of students who require differentiated strategies to meet their specific learning needs and strengths. Proponents of a particular perspective frequently propose the exclusive use of their preferred method.

However, educators do not need to follow a simplistic approach that limits programs to "either/or." Rather, an inclusive curriculum embracing several educational philosophies can foster a lifetime love of learning. School gardening might also be offered as an elective in the grade levels that present curriculum options. Students learn best when they are encouraged to follow their interests after exposure to a variety of subject matter. Educators using best practices can and do use experiential learning in the garden to support a multitude of learning opportunities involving, but not limited to, literacy, numeracy, biology, chemistry, history, economics, botany, art, culture, and community.

Yes, at times the locavore movement can feel tiresome, but having had a bad dinner at experience at Chez Panisse is not a reason to attack school gardens. For all her entertaining rhetoric, Flanagan has brought no new insight to the table. Her cure--increased standardization of education--merely swings outdated pendulum theories.

This post was written with Joseph Leonard Benveniste, who knows a lot about schools.
More on School Gardens and Alice Waters
The Organic Garden as Classroom
Growing Food and Community in the Desert
How to Green Your School
Alice Waters Doesn't Have a Microwave- Should You Ditch Yours?
Book Review: The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

Tags: Alice Waters | Berkeley | Community Gardens | Education | Farming | Gardening

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